I had a grandmother who was a very large woman for most of her 99 and 1/2 years on this earth. She was both physically large and large in life. More than anything, she loved to laugh. Enjoying a good joke or prank was the highlight of her day, every day, and she often said that laughter is just good for the soul.
I think I must have inherited a piece of her soul.
Around 3:30 in the afternoon on a sweltering July afternoon, the phone rang in the office of the funeral home. “It’s a call located on the west side, 34 miles away,” the secretary announced. Most of the funeral directors were already busy with preparations for other viewings so the two least busy men were tagged to go on the call. Those two men knew their day had gotten significantly longer.
This particular call sticks in my mind as one of my favorite stories. Not that Debbie died. Not that someone lost a loved one. It’s because in this business with so much sadness each day, humor can relieve the soul. Humor is like a balm. As a child of a funeral director, a wife of one, a sister of one, and a funeral planning counselor myself, I need humor in my life to balance out the sadness. It’s said that a good, hearty laugh once a day will add years to your life. I want to live a good long life and if laughter is the key, I’m all in. We laugh in this business never to disrespect a human being or to make fun at the expense of your loved one. We laugh in a funeral home with a gentle heart and always with your loved one, not at them.
The two funeral directors arrived on the call at lot #63, where sat the very farthest mobile home from the decades-old trailer park entrance, just near the railroad tracks. The sparkling clean white funeral van was parked in the only open space available right next to a 1974 Chevy and a couple of rusted out family station wagons. A boardwalk that consisted of 3 whole boards and several partial boards led to the entrance of the rundown home. It was a perfectly good path, that is, if you didn’t need to wheel a cot into the home. Nevertheless, the two suits managed; they were sweating and grunting, but they managed.
Entering into the home, they found two men in the living room. One was an extremely elderly gentleman with an oxygen tank who was barely aware of his own most certainly approaching demise. The other was a younger man, maybe in his 40’s, with a cigarette perched on his lips and three half smoked butts still smoldering in the mason jar lid that served as his ashtray. He was so skinny that when he turned sideways he nearly disappeared. There was a noticeable lack of emotion at this scene that was not typical, but then again, there really never is a typical situation when you are dealing with death. Grief is unpredictable. Usually when a funeral director enters a home, it’s not unusual for a family member to ask to help move their loved one onto the cot before the body is taken to the funeral home, and most directors are happy to let them assist. It is not inappropriate to help and at times, the directors will even ask if anyone would like to help. However, in this case it was clear that helping hands were probably not going to be an option.
When the funeral director asked where the woman was that had passed away, the only movement that stirred the smoke filled room was a long, boney finger with a cigarette nestled in between the bulging knuckles pointing toward the back bedroom.
“Her name is Debbie, and she’s fat,” he said in his deep, gruff voice. The two directors maneuvered the cot through the front doorway, being careful not to scratch or damage any furniture. They had to dodge several cats that were frightened by the strangers, all the while still trying to personify dignity and compassion as much as possible.
They pulled the cot through the living room, and then dignity took an unexpected holiday. One of the men accidentally rolled a wheel of the cot over a cat’s tail, which caused the cat to jump across the room and onto the table. It spooked another cat, which spooked the funeral director, who then tripped over the old man’s oxygen cords, which pulled the nose piece off of the older man’s face and knocked his cup of coffee onto the yellow and brown floral couch. Had the coffee spilt, it would have blended in quite nicely, but thank goodness for sippy cups. The old man didn’t seem to notice, placed the oxygen back in his nose and just kept staring at the muted monster truck commercials on the big screen TV that sat on the floor in the corner of the room.
The two directors went down the tiny hallway. The single wide trailer was not built for cots, even twin sized cots. Somehow they managed to get to the door of the bedroom anyway. When they opened the door, both of their mouths dropped open. There in the room was a beautiful king sized, four poster bed. It was a dark oak color with scrolled pillars on each corner of the bed frame that missed scraping the ceiling by mere inches. The sides of the bed all but touched the outer walls of the room, literally leaving less than a foot in the crevices. It must have been a feat of incredibly talented engineers that put that bed together in there. Or maybe they built the trailer home around it? Who knows.
As the funeral directors surveyed the tight situation, realizing they would need to use all of their ingenuity to maneuver the cot into even a tiny portion of the room, their eyes finally rested on the sweet lady resting atop of the bed.
Debbie was large.
You might say Debbie was king sized. Debbie filled the whole of that king size bed from the left side to the right and head to toe. Debbie had passed away peacefully in the night with a smile on her face. A perfectly, sunny, mischievous smile on her perfectly beautifully round face. Clearly, Debbie must have had a sense of humor.
I picture her floating up above her earthly vessel laughing like a bowl full of jelly as she watched these two seriously serious morticians staring at her unusually rotund body in this tiny room trying to figure out how in the world they were going to get her body off of that bed and onto the twin size cot, out of the hallway, down the rickety steps, across the broken boardwalk and into that shiney van. The dilemma seemed insurmountable.
Keeping their composure, they looked back into the living room hoping for some help or advice from the family. Nope, that wasn’t an option.
The two funeral directors began to sweat even greater drops of perspiration. “Got any bright ideas?” one of them asked as he leaned up against one of the meticulously scrolled oak posters on the end of the bed. Snap. Crackle. And then a resounding Pop. The pillar broke off of the bed frame like a dry twig. Down went the mortician. The weight of his body landed so hard on the edge of the bed that in an instant he was wedged in between the bed and the wall with the pillar flinging across the room. Gratefully, it just missed punching a hole in the thinly paneled walls, but the guy was stuck.
The second funeral director could only stare in disbelief at what had just transpired. He couldn’t move for what felt like an eternity to the guy who was face down staring at the olive green shag carpet and the hair balls under the bed. “Help me!” he cried. The upright funeral director finally gathered his wits and jumped into action. He grabbed the broken pillar, stretched it out over to the sandwiched mortician who grabbed onto it with his one free hand as if he was about to be rescued from a sinking ship. When he finally popped out, they both peered down the hallway toward the living room, wide eyed and pale faced, to see if they had stirred the men in the other room. Reruns of Hawaii 5 0 had just started and they were glued to the TV. Using the ends of the bed sheet, they both latched onto it with a death grip, yanked and pulled and tugged and grunted until Debbie had slid down and off of the end of the bed and onto the twin sized cot. They centered her just right so as not to topple the cot on the way out. The guy who broke the bed post kept trying desperately to balance it back on top of the corner bed stump to look as if nothing had happened. He was frantic! “Look for some scotch tape. Do you think they will notice? I think it will stay with some scotch tape. Wait. Wait. Wait. Oh oh oh, I think I fixed it,” as it fell forward onto the bed each time he tried.
Finally, accepting defeat, they left the post on the mattress and started down the hall. When they apologized for the accident and promised to replace the pillar, an emotion finally erupted between the old man and the skinny smoker. They looked at each other with crossed eyebrows and a confused expression on their faces. The two funeral directors buckled up for a serious tongue lashing. Then, without warning, the two men began to snicker. Soon they erupted into laughter that included snorting and cackling until they were inconsolable. Yes, grief is unpredictable or maybe they knew that Debbie had played just one last prank.
As the funeral directors made their way out the front door, down the rickety steps, across the broken boardwalk and back to the van, they began to laugh too. Their laughter joined the echoes of the men in the trailer and they all knew that Debbie had had the last laugh.
Whenever these two funeral directors share this experience, they still insist that this unusual lady had a smile that was a bit wider on her face than it was when they arrived. I have to believe Debbie’s mischievous spirit was dying of laughter, even if she was already dead.
I love Fat Debbie; we surely are soul sisters.
It’s a true story!